Left Side Media Mistakes

Is the news industry only focused on ratings?

A number of years ago, The Virginian-Pilot ran a relatively brief article about the efforts of religious conservatives to insert creationism into school curricula, alongside the teaching of the theory of evolution. In an attempt to appear balanced, the reporter gave equal space to both sides.

The trouble is, this approach wasn’t balanced at all. It was a distortion.

A truly accurate article would have acknowledged that virtually all scientists take evolution as fact and regard “creation science” as an oxymoron—religion masquerading as science. But I wasn’t surprised by this distortion. Had the Pilot pointed out that most scientists dismiss creationism and devoted the article to an explanation of why this is so, conservative readers would have accused the paper of showing its “liberal bias.”  

The charge is absurd. The mainstream media don’t have a liberal bias. They have a money bias; they are driven by one motive: ratings—or in the case of the print media, readership—which they can use as a selling point when pitching advertisers. It’s as simple as that.

This explains why local news casts have devolved into little more than an amalgam of sensational crime stories, with a few yuk-yuk “human interest” stories, sports reports and weather forecasts thrown into the mix. Local newspapers are a bit tamer in this regard but not far behind. Indeed, as I was sitting down to write this column, I checked The Virginian-Pilot website. The top headline was, “D.C. Gunman Identified; at least 12 dead, officials say.”

OK, so this was the big news of the day. But what followed this one? “Va. Beach man gets 16 months for making fake ID’s”; “Hampton man charged with several burglaries”; “Police charge man in sex assault at Hampton school”; “Norfolk police ID man who died after shooting.” There were a couple of other top headlines. I learned, for example, that “Chocolate [was] going on [the] next space station delivery.”

But is this really reflective of the most important news of the day?

Of course not.

Where, I’ve often wondered, is the serious reporting? Where are the investigations? Where is the literary journalism that the Pilot used to publish back in the 1980s and early 90s?

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Pilot still does some good stuff on occasion. But over the years, both its page count and proportionate news hole—the space allocated for articles as opposed to advertising—have shrunk dramatically. A lot of people excuse this as unavoidable because “print is dying.” But there are all kinds of possible business models that would allow newspapers like the Pilot—mid-size papers in mid-size metro areas—to pour resources into reporting. It’s just a matter of accepting lower profit expectations and jettisoning highly-paid executives so that more money could be devoted to salaries for reporters and editors.

And imagine what local television news could be if its executives saw themselves as cultural stewards rather than ratings hounds. Why not produce serious documentaries that take us inside the schools, for example, and help us understand why so many of them are failing to earn accreditation, as WAVY recently reported? Why not have serious interviews and more coverage of the arts? The answer, again, is that local news stations here and across the country operate on the old “if it bleeds, it leads” model rather than trying to come up with a whole new vision that would realize the extraordinary potential of the medium.

It’s worthwhile to consider the underdeveloped potential of radio as well. One mainstream media organization that does have a clear political bias—a conservative one—is WNIS. At the very least, it would be nice if the station managers had enough sense of cultural responsibility to program even one show with a distinct left-wing bias as a way of balancing Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage. Better still to offer a show that’s inherently balanced, like NPR’s “Left, Right and Center.”

WHRO, our local PBS/NPR affiliate, remains the one local broadcasting operation that still does do quality programming. Although it, too, could do a lot more local news. They would like to, its executives have told me, but they just don’t have the money.

I don’t mean to dismiss the magnitude of this problem. Producing quality print journalism is expensive; quality broadcast programming far more so. What these executives of both our print and electronic media won’t tell you, though, is that they have a choice. With the exception of WHRO, they all choose to devote an absurd amount of space and time to crime at the expense of other topics. This not only displaces more important stories, it keeps communities on edge by giving the impression that crime is more rampant than it is. It is culturally toxic. But it’s been the standard model for longer than I’ve been alive, and at the risk of sounding cynical, I don’t think it will ever change. The best thing we consumers of news and commentary can do is look to alternative media and let the mainstream operations continue to fade into irrelevance.

Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 21 years. He can be reached at tomrobotham@gmail.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.